The Jacobs Wind Electric Company

1931 to 1956

 
 

The Jacobs Wind Electric Company was the most influential, significant, and remarkable manufacturer not for production volume but for the performance and reliability of their wind charger. The original Jacobs direct-drive machines are still considered the finest wind plants ever built by any manufacturer.

                       

The year was 1924 at a place called Vida, Montana, a desolate location near the North Dakota border where brothers Charlie, Joe, Marcellus, and Fred Jacobs were caught up in the national fascination with radio and were building their own receivers. Using their mother’s clothesline as an antenna, they listened to broadcasts from as far away as Los Angeles. They sold these receivers to their neighbors to earn money to build a shortwave broadcast station and became known as the “Voice of Cow Creek.” The Jacobs ranch was powered by a Delco-Light farm electric plant and the Jacobs brothers broadcasted on evenings and weekends, telling jokes, making up skits, and having their friends play musical instruments for the benefit of the neighbors. They eventually sold the transmitter to a friend and Marcellus and Joe turned their interest to wind-driven generators for charging radio batteries and developed a small unit for sale.  


But the brothers had bigger ideas and set out to develop a large wind generator to compete with the 32-volt full home electric plants. After experimenting for a few years, Marcellus, who would become known as M.L., and Joe settled on a final design, manufactured a few in Montana, and then moved to Minneapolis in 1930 to open a factory. In 1931, the first large Jacobs units began to roll off the production line. They produced two models - the Model 45 and Model 60 rated 45 amps and 60 amps respectively. The two models were identical except for a slightly longer generator on the model 60 that provided more power where the winds were especially strong. Not only did they make all of the right basic decisions about the design of their windmill, they were committed to a concept that placed them ahead of any competitors. Their wind machine ran smoothly, reliably, and efficiently day after day, year after year, decade after decade unattended in all weather conditions. Jacobs Wind Electric Plants quickly became legendary for their flawless performance and total reliability, with virtually no breakdowns or maintenance required. This incredible feat was the hallmark of their success and is still to this day a fundamental concept that must be adhered to for successful wind generators.


Jacobs Wind Electric Plant - The standard Jacobs Model 45 typically included the wind generator, “Master-Mind” control panel, large 440 Ah battery, and a 50-foot tower. The Model 60 came with an even larger 660 Ah battery. Tower heights from 30 to 80 feet could be substituted as needed. Product literature predicted monthly power output of 400 or more KWh per month


Jacobs Wind Generator - The Jacobs was one of the larger wind generators. It had a three-blade propeller 14 foot in diameter direct-connected to a large slow-speed generator. A huge contribution to Jacobs success came from early experiments that determined that three blades is the right number for a high efficiency wind-driven generator. M.L. would speak on this subject to anybody who brought it up - he was not shy. He was right for many reasons. The three-blade system simply operates smoother since it’s always in perfect mass and aerodynamic balance regardless of the position of the blades. Secondly, because of this, the turning rotor can easily be re-oriented to face the wind with a smooth transition as it responds to the inevitably constantly changing wind direction. Finally, they start up faster from a rest position after a period of calm. In the stopped position, one blade is straight up and the other two are at 30 degrees below horizontal so that all of them are in “clean” air. Jacobs attached three blades, made of aircraft quality Sitka spruce, to a fly-ball actuated governor which limited the speed of the propellers no matter how strong the winds blew. The governor changed the angle of the blades simultaneously to convert the “lift” forces that increase speed to “drag” forces that reduce speed. If you could stand at the base of a tower in complete calm and slowly increase the wind speed you would see the Jacobs start to turn slowly when the speed reached about 10 mph. It should be noted that, once running, it would continue to operate in winds as low as 7 mph. As wind speeds increase, the propeller speed increases until the governor limits the speed - typically in 22 to 26 mph winds. At this point, the weight of the fly-balls overcome an adjustable spring preload and turn the blades simultaneously into a stall condition, the propeller slows down and the fly-balls retract, and the process continues repeatedly no matter how high the wind speed goes or until it slows down again below 22 mph.


The propeller blades were upwind of the tower and pointed into the wind by a tail-vane mounted behind the generator. As a matter of convenience, the position of the tail-vane could be controlled from the ground to turn the wind generator off by placing the rotor sideways to the wind. Although most wind generators incorporated this feature, the Jacobs had a slightly different approach that demonstrated their wisdom. With Jacobs, the tail-vane’s normal position is “off” and you had to turn the tail-vane to the “on” position behind the generator to point the rotor into the wind. This was accomplished by connecting the tail-vane by a chain, wire, and swivel down through the turntable to a crank handle mounted on one of the tower legs near the ground. The other wind generators had a similar mechanism except the normal position would be “on” and it had to be turned “off” at the ground. If the cable failed, the Jacobs machines would turn itself off, whereas if the cable failed on other machines they would be impossible to turn off, especially during a storm.


Jacobs Master-Mind - The Master-Mind regulated power from the generator to optimize charging of the battery. Unlike the competition, which normally used a simple cut out relay, the Jacobs Master-Mind sensed when the battery was close to full-charged and would reduce the charge rate to a slow “trickle” to “equalize” the cells, improving performance and extending battery life. In the Master-Mind panel, an override switch served two purposes. Instructions specified that when the wind electric plant was first installed, the override switch should be turned on and the wind generator be allowed to give the battery a strong overcharge with no power drawn off. The wind generator should then be turned off and the battery fully discharged before turning the wind generator back on and returning the override switch to the off position for normal operation. It was also recommended that the override switch be turned on every two months in strong winds to provide an overcharge to break up sulphation in the battery to restore and maintain capacity and extend life. With this method, Jacobs was able to provide an unconditional 10-year warranty on their battery, as opposed to the three year which was the industry standard at the time. The batteries would typically last 12 to 20 years and would be recycled, of course.


Jacobs Battery - The battery was a string of 16 large lead-acid cells in glass containers and specially designed for deep cycle farm electric plant service. M.L. Jacobs had cells made to his specification with the Jacobs name on them by Willard Battery in Cleveland, a large supplier to the auto industry at the time, and sold them with an unconditional 10-year warranty. The two sizes would store 14 kilowatt hours and 21 kilowatt hours, respectively, which would continue to supply electric power for three or more days in calm wind, which was rare in the Great Plains. There were several battery manufacturers competing for the farm electric plant business that could also be used with the Jacobs


Jacobs Tower - The standard Jacobs tower was a 50-foot four-post type that was popular with the ubiquitous farm multi-blade water pumping windmill. In fact, Jacobs bought their towers from windmill manufacturers in the Midwest, such as Challenge, Dempster, and Woodmanse. Jacobs even allowed their wind plants to be used with a three-post tower made by Wincharger. The standard 50-foot tower was more than adequate for most farms on the Great Plains where they were the most popular and the highest surface obstructions were wheat fields and fences posts. Other tower heights ranged from 30 feet to 80 feet.


Jacobs Farm Electric Plants - Always looking for new and innovative products and opportunities, the Jacobs brothers teamed up with Briggs and Stratton to make their own 2.5 kilowatt gasoline genset to be sold with their wind electric plants. They would go on to offer a larger 6 kilowatt diesel genset, too. These machines would insure a continuous supply of electric power even for large uses during extremely long periods of calm wind. Like everything they did, these gensets were top-notch.


Jacobs Appliances -  High efficiency freezers. refrigerators, Eureka vacuums, Hamilton-Beach mixers, convenience appliances, motors, and tools were either made by or offered for use with their plants. The freezers they made had cork insulation, and M. L. would often brag “that you could turn the power off and ice cream would stay hard for a week,” as he gave them away on television shows, like Queen for a Day, in the 1950s.


The Jacobs wind plant was an instant success and sales grew rapidly. Combined with propane for home heat, hot water, and cooking, all the modern home conveniences were now available for rural and remote families. Jacobs advertising literature promised energy production of 300 to 500 kilowatt hours per month in strong winds - and delivered. Jacobs owners could rely on their wind charger always producing enough energy to power their homes reliably. In 1933, Admiral Richard Byrd’s Little America expedition took a Jacobs Wind Electric Plant for power. Byrd and his engineers wrote M.L. and spoke glowingly about how flawlessly the wind generator operated through the entire expedition noting that the wind generator supplied all the power most of the time saving them precious genset fuel. Wind speeds in the area measured in excess of 100 miles per hour and temperatures dipped to 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, and there was not a single failure from the Jacobs during the entire expedition. A mission in Ethiopia installed a Jacobs in 1938 and they wrote M. L. in 1968 to inform him that they only needed a small $5 wear item, armature brushes, to keep their plant running - after 30 years!. M.L. developed a special low voltage model especially to provide cathodic protection to underground pipelines. His clients included most of the major gas and oil companies in the United States and Saudi Arabia. Add a special unit for the railroads and remote runways and Jacobs Wind Electric Plants were showing up all over the world, such as Spain, South Africa, many South American countries, and islands just about everywhere.


Jacobs had a great reputation and a continuing demand for their wind generators through the mid-1950s through the marketing skills of M.L. In the early years he would personally show up at agricultural shows and fairs in his pick-up truck. As business grew, he acquired a Stinson airplane to visit his dealers. He was an excellent pilot and was undaunted by bad weather. During the 1940s, Jacobs bought out many competitors and, like others, contributed the company’s skills to the war effort.  Jacobs made a “degaussing” unit for ship hulls that was based on the 6-kilowatt diesel set to help protect against magnetic mines at sea. After WWII, a 110-volt version of the Model 60 wind generator, the Model 60BX, was introduced with a 3,000 watt rating and new and improved governor system to replace the venerable fly-ball governor. M.L. developed a “tornado warning device” and spent an entire summer testing it in “tornado alley”. In 1956, Joe and M.L. closed the plant and M.L. moved to Fort Myers, Florida. Joe was killed in an automobile accident in 1963. M.L., inspired by the renewed interest in wind energy in the early 1970’s, began work on a new and larger 10 to 20 kW machine which went into production in 1983. In 1985, M. L. died of injuries suffered in an automobile accident and the company was handed over to his son and remains in business.


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